- Year: 1999
- Director: David Jones
- Starring: Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Joel Grey
Well, here we are at the last week of A Christmas Carol‘s Movie Match-Up. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the Finney, but we still have two to go—one starring an acclaimed Shakespearean actor as Scrooge, and the other made by the director of Forrest Gump and Back to the Future. Don’t think that everything fresh and interesting has already been brought to the table.
For years, Patrick Stewart had done one-man productions of A Christmas Carol on stage, so it only seemed appropriate to cast him as Ebenezer Scrooge in a film version. With a line of endless Scrooge performances before him, how does Patrick Stewart distinguish himself from the others?
His performance is somewhere in between the coldness of George C. Scott and the outward anger of Reginald Owen. His only over-the-top angry moment is scaring a child caroling at his door, but I think Scrooge is intentionally playing it up here. Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge probably doesn’t mind children being scared of him, because at least they’ll leave him alone.
It feels like this version was trying to be the most faithful to the original text, including moments and even whole scenes that were left out of other adaptations. In the novel, Christmas Present shows Scrooge both miners and sailors singing Christmas carols and celebrating the holiday in their own way. While this only takes up a couple paragraphs in the book, there is definitely opportunity for a cool cinematic moment. Sure, the 1935 version had a short moment with the sailors, and similarly the 1951 version showed the miners briefly, but it never felt grandiose. Here, the scene is expanded upon, as we see miners, sailors, and even chimney sweeps singing “Silent Night” in various locations and languages.
Honestly, the best scenes in this movie are the ones with little-to-no dialogue. The opening scene depicts Marley’s funeral, and before even a word is said, we know everything we need to about the scene—Marley’s dead, very few people attended the funeral, and Scrooge is a cold man. This is immensely better than a narrator simply saying, “Marley was dead to begin with.”
However, there are places where trying to be the most faithful adaptation actually hurts the film. I’m afraid that the screenwriter took the text way too literally in some parts. Dickens was a master of setting up a scene with wonderful descriptions, and there’s a passage where he describes the biblical-themed murals in Scrooge’s home. Scrooge has just seen Marley on the doorknocker, and he then imagines Marley’s head on the murals. Dickens clearly states that Scrooge was not thinking of Marley when he saw him on the doorknocker, but says that imagining his head on the murals comes from “the disjointed fragments of his thoughts.” He saw him once and was trying in vain to remove the thought from his mind, but instead sees him everywhere. Since it is hard to differentiate on film between what Scrooge really sees and his thoughts, most versions make the wise choice of not showing this mural scene at all, and it feels tacky here.
In another moment straight from the text, Jacob Marley’s ghost (Bernard Lloyd) proves he is real by untying the wrap holding his head together and dropping his jaw father than any human could.
This is a very hard image to make scary. On paper, it works in a way, as at least it comes across as unnerving and unnatural. As you can see though, in the film, it just looks silly. To make it worse, Marley can’t get it tied back together and Scrooge has to help him, in what is neither amusing or creepy.
This odd moment aside, Bernard Lloyd is perhaps the most believable Jacob Marley ever put to screen. Most Marleys focus on scaring and even intimidating Scrooge, which is odd because they were friends and business partners. Here, Scrooge and Marley have a rapport, a real camaraderie. Once Scrooge accepts the fact that he is talking to the ghost of his old partner, he talks as one would to someone they have not seen in a long time, dead or otherwise. Just like all Marleys, this one does not have time for small talk, but he still has a conversational tone.
The film also has a weird take on the book’s description of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
And by weird I mean wrong. Yes, Dickens’ text does say, “It thrilled [Scrooge] with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him,” and if you stopped reading there, I could understand the design. However, if you continue reading the same sentence, it clearly says that all Scrooge could see was “a spectral hand and one great big heap of black.” Later, it specifically mentions the “Unseen Eyes.” The horror comes not from seeing the eyes, but knowing that there is something looking at you that you can’t see. The Alastair Sim version gets this down perfectly. Oh by the way, let’s see what the spectral hand looks like here.
The eyes are a misread of the text, but this is just lazy. For a movie that really tries in a lot of places, I don’t know what happened here.
Staying very true to the text, Christmas Future shows a usually skipped scene where a couple who owes Scrooge money celebrate his death. Do not adjust your sets, because I am about to compliment Scrooge 1970.
So why is this scene usually cut? Most versions have no problem showing the hobo and charwoman looting Scrooge’s items. I wouldn’t say it’s too mean-spirited, as the couple does feel bad for their happiness at his death. The reason this is probably cut is a mixture of time constraints and that it just doesn’t really need to be there. We need Tiny Tim’s death, we need Scrooge to see his future fate, but we already have one scene where people are happy that Scrooge died.
This scene has been done well once, but it’s done by capturing the spirit of the scene instead of showing the book’s scene itself. The “Thank You Very Much” number from Scrooge 1970 is mean-spirited, bombastic, and shows pure unadulterated joy at Scrooge being dead. In most versions, it would be out of place, and it still kind of is there, but at least it’s a musical where we’ve been introduced to the character leading the song and sympathize with him a bit. In the 1999 film, we just get Caroline and her husband, who we haven’t seen before and won’t see again.
Alright, so we have a very faithful and very literal adaptation of the book. How badly do they mess up the Ghost of Christmas Past? There’s no way they’re going to get someone who looks like both like an old man and a little child.
Oh my gosh, they’ve done it! You mean to tell me all these previous versions (well okay, the more recent ones) could have cast Joel Grey this whole time? Casting director Joyce Gallie deserved an Emmy for this choice alone. I’m not even saying it’s a magnificent performance, but there are only a handful of actors who look simultaneously old and young, and seeing as how Paul Reubens would have been distracting, I can’t think of anyone better. Yes, I know the book also describes the ghost’s appearance as constantly changing, but there’s no way a live-action film is going to do that, and it shouldn’t.
This is a film that I really want to like more, because all the components sound really good. I’ve tried to pin down what exactly it is that doesn’t work, and after some thought, I think I have. While the performances are mostly all competent, you rarely feel like the story is really happening. A movie should completely engross you and at best make you forget you’re watching a movie at all. A Christmas Carol 1999 feels more like a stage play, and while there have been many good stage versions of A Christmas Carol, that’s not really what you want from a movie. Most of the performances feel very rehearsed and a bit unnatural, with the exception of Patrick Stewart who is quite good as Scrooge, but he could use better actors to work with. If I saw a stage production that was this good, I would be thrilled, but as a movie, it leaves something to be desired.
When I see David Warner in the 1984 film, I believe I’m seeing the real Bob Cratchit, even though many others have played him well. When I see Richard E. Grant in this version, he looks gaunt and underfed, and he gives a solid performance, but it just seems like a good actor playing Bob Cratchit. When Grant’s Cratchit, after Tiny Tim’s death, forces himself to say “I’m very happy,” it doesn’t come across as sincere. When David Warner’s says it, though, he makes you believe that he is making himself joyful for the sake of his family.
Like Cratchit, Desmond Barrit sure looks the part as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Unfortunately, for someone who is supposed to embody Christmas Spirit, he doesn’t seem to have much himself. He barely smiles and he never laughs heartily. Sure, there’s a somber side to Christmas Present too, but this guy just seems bored. Once again, maybe if this was on stage I could accept it more, but in a film, it just feels wrong.
As mentioned above, the Christmas Present scenes are expanded here, including this scene where the ghost takes Scrooge to… um…
I’m not sure, but it looks like a parking garage. They were in a prison in the scene before this, and nothing actually happens in this location, so I have absolutely no idea what this is supposed to be. I know it’s only five seconds of the film, but this always bothered me.
Patrick Stewart carries the film on his shoulders most of the way, and the graveyard scene should be the scene that clinches it and makes it a truly great performance, but it isn’t. I don’t think it’s his fault, but the tone of this scene is all wrong. He just kind of looks down and sees his grave instead of nervously wiping snow off of it. When does see it, he looks confused.
Up until this point, I was convinced that this Scrooge knew he was the dead man, but he asks in surprise “Am I the man who lay upon that bed?” with major emphasis on the “I.” George C. Scott asked a very similar question as to the man’s identity before it is revealed, but he’s trying to convince himself that it’s not him.
It’s not too bad, I guess, because Scrooge accepts his fate and promises to live in the past, present, and future… and then the grave opens…
And Scrooge trips and falls down onto his own corpse…
And they get sucked into hell together.
In Stewart’s defense, there is no way to act well in this scene. At least there is a pithy excuse as to why the hell scene exists in Scrooge 1970, but I can’t defend this one at all. Thankfully, there isn’t actually a scene in hell, but the waking up scene kind of feels like it.
Scrooge starts choking from laughing so hard, and it is so fake and bizarre, it’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch.
Of all the silly, overblown, cheesy waking up scenes, this is by far the weirdest and worst. I can’t imagine anyone thinking this was a good take.
To be fair, Stewart does really well throughout the rest of the scenes. I love how it’s acknowledged subtly that Scrooge will have to get used to being a functioning member of society. He stumbles over his words when he offers to give his errand boy a schilling. Later at church, an usher signals for him to take off his hat, but he instead assumes he’s tipping his hat. None of these are big things, but they exist to show that Scrooge will have a few things to adjust. Patrick Stewart does gives Scrooge a believable transformation, and when he tells Bob Cratchit that he wants to help his family, we believe him.
How do Patrick Stewart and company stack up against the rest? Let’s check the final score.
Story (25/30 Points)
On one hand, it’s trying to stay really true to the Dickens’ text. On the other, it sometimes focuses on simply having the scenes over developing them.
Scrooge (23/30 Points)
With a better film around him, who knows? Maybe Patrick Stewart could have been as good as Alastair Sim or even approached George C. Scott. As it is, he gives still easily the best performance in the film, and alone justifies watching it.
Ghosts (5/10 Points)
Bernard Lloyd brings a human side to Marley that often is missed, and Joel Grey is perfect casting for Christmas Past in terms of appearance. Christmas Present sleepwalks through the thing though, and Christmas Future just makes me mad.
Bob Cratchit (6/10 Points)
Richard E. Grant does a fine job portraying Bob Cratchit, but it doesn’t help that his kids are not very good actors. I want to like him more than I do, honestly.
Supporting Characters (2/10 Points)
I didn’t talk about Fezziwig in the review, but he’s pretty enjoyable… and yeah that’s about it. It’s just a shame that no one stands out.
Experience (6/10 Points)
The “Silent Night” scene is breathtaking, and the opening funeral scene really sets the mood. I really wish we could have gotten more of that instead of the bland set pieces that populate the rest of the film.
Final Score: 67%
I remember that the first time I saw this years ago, I was really impressed at how faithful it was. Comparing it against others though, it’s enjoyable but pedestrian. It does feel like a really good stage production of A Christmas Carol. Since I’ve started reviewing these, I’ve learned that this actually has a pretty big fan base, and I get it. I can easily see it being someone’s favorite version due to the story and strength of Patrick Stewart’s performance. For me, it’s one I’ll watch if it’s on, but I don’t feel required to watch it every year.
One to go. On Wednesday, we’ll be looking at a version that I actually have not seen yet… 2009’s A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey.